Ani DiFranco The L'il Folksinger That Could
Published Jan 01, 2006In the last dozen years, Ani DiFranco has single-handedly become the greatest success story in recent music history. She's a one-woman general of an army she doesn't lead. She's the CEO of a record company whose success she's never courted. For the last six years, she's been one of the top 50 concert draws in the U.S., without theatrics, by following an age-old folk formula of playing and singing and being honest with people. She's tapped into a fervent audience of loyal feminists and music fans, even as she's deflected and deferred their worship. She's consistently evolved her music, her politics, her playing style, her voice and her appearance. And she's remained true to the liner notes on her very first recording, which read in part: "I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am. Should any part of my music offend you, please do not close your ears to it. Just take what you can use and go on."
Having acquired a guitar a year earlier, nine year old Ani DiFranco walks into a music shop in Buffalo, NY to get lessons. She meets local folk scenester Michael Meldrum, and plays Jethro Tull's "Wond'ring Aloud" and W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" to demonstrate her prowess. Meldrum becomes her mentor, and starts taking her to gigs in the Buffalo area. "He had me out in bars and squawking at inappropriate ages," DiFranco says now. "One of the basic things that I learned was that music is an activity it's a social act, not a commodity. That made an impression on my psyche. My parents didn't have a stereo, so I didn't buy records until I was in college. Growing up, music was something that you did, in a room in time and space that was one of the gifts that Michael gave me."
By age 11, DiFranco is already a performance veteran. She learns to be heard over bar chatter by taping plastic fingernails to her fingers, allowing her to play her acoustic much louder. "[I also learned] basic folk singer chops. Folk singers on stage are just themselves you talk about whatever is on your mind and you include political perspectives and your community newspaper, as opposed to other forms of music where there's more theatre or more pomp and circumstance in the performance. Folk singers are pretty straight up on stage, and that made an impression on me. Just stand there, play guitar and sing at people. It seemed like a good enough career choice."
DiFranco's parents' home becomes a crash pad for touring artists coming through Buffalo, often booked by Meldrum. Guests influential on the young Ani include Suzanne Vega and Michelle Shocked.
DiFranco decides that dance, not music, is her true calling and attends the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, until 1987.
DiFranco's parents divorce. Rather than choose with whom to live, she moves out on her own, taking a variety of service-industry jobs to pay her way. One of these, in construction, brings her in contact with a politically committed carpenter named Scot Fisher, who will later play a key role in her career.
DiFranco plays in a Buffalo band that either never had a name, or that she has since forgotten.
A romantic relationship with an older man sours after she gets pregnant; he disappears after her abortion. The painful experience is chronicled in "Lost Woman Song" on her first album, released the following year. She enrols in Buffalo State College, studying painting and art, while continuing to play gigs on weekends.
DiFranco drops out of BSC and moves to New York, where she attends the New School For Social Research, studying poetry. Her mentor is poet Sekou Sundiata, who will later release albums on Righteous Babe Records. She befriends Dale Anderson, a 47-year-old rock critic, who becomes her manager.
She chooses 12 songs from over 100 she's written to date and records her first self-titled cassette, featuring simply her voice and acoustic guitar, at Audio Magic Studios in Buffalo. She borrows $1500 for the recording and duplication of 500 cassettes, released under the moniker of Righteous Babe Records. Her first choice, Righteous Records, was already taken by a Southern gospel label. The manufacturing is also done by a Buffalo company (the same one she works with to this day) despite the fact that DiFranco is based in NYC.
"I was performing in Buffalo for ten years before I made a tape. When I made that first cassette tape, it started to have a life of its own. It began to travel. That's when I began to make connections with my tribe other women in colleges started duplicating my tape and sending it to each other. Letters started coming in saying can you come play in our cafeteria? The women's centre can pay you $200.'" She embarks upon weekend jaunts to cities within driving (or bus ride) distance to play gigs, even while she continues with school and volunteer work with the Central American Solidarity Movement and the War Resisters' League.
As the cassette gains notoriety, an unnamed indie label makes a serious play to sign DiFranco. "The closest I ever came to signing with anyone," she reveals. "It was an indie label, but it was still a business, and I realised I wasn't with them in a political way."
She releases her second album, Not So Soft. While one of her early songs, "Both Hands," endears her to a lesbian audience, her songs continue to explore her personal politics and her sexuality; she writes about both women and men. "I wasn't trying to corner the market or anything. I was just writing from up out of myself. I don't know that I had much of a context for what I was doing at all that almost came later, as I began doing these regional dates. Hardly tours, but getting on the bus and going to play these colleges in the Northeast. That led to this folk circuit and folk festivals and then I began to build a community around myself, or fall into one that already existed."
As gigs proliferate, she drops out of school to tour the country alone in a 1969 VW Beetle. She's quickly playing up to 200 gigs a year. On this year's album, Imperfectly, she begins to chafe at the expectations placed upon her by an increasingly loyal and sometimes fanatical fan base, outlined in the song "I'm No Heroine."
Imperfectly features Toronto drummer Andy Stochansky; she hires him to accompany her on tour as well. Some of her early, vigilant fans chafe at the idea of her playing with a man, of "abandoning" her solo folk roots, and that her audiences are growing beyond the small rooms of her early days. "From pretty early on when I started touring, as scratch and sniff as it was, I started toting Andy around. I'm not a separatist and I'm not a man-hater, despite everything I've been stereotyped as over the years. I don't know that there were many people in my audience who were either."
DiFranco gives in to the fact that selling T-shirts at gigs something she'd avoided to this point would allow her enough financial wiggle room to hire some touring help. She insists that neither her face nor her name would appear on T-shirts she prints poems on them instead. That policy continues to this day; T-shirts now typically sport the Righteous Babe Records logo, but not DiFranco's name. Righteous Babe begins to hire staff to handle business affairs; the company is moved out of DiFranco's NYC apartment and back to Buffalo.
Puddle Dive is released. DiFranco re-records 15 songs from her first two records, with fuller band arrangements, and releases them as Like I Said (Songs 1990-1991).
Manager Dale Anderson departs; long-time friend, carpenter, lawyer and prisoners rights advocate Scot Fisher becomes her manager and eventually President of Righteous Babe Records. (DiFranco is CEO.)
Out of Range, recorded the previous December in Toronto, is released, completing her evolution from solo folkie to confident rocker. "[The band] was such a long-term organic evolution that I don't know that anyone could react. I tricked them!"
Cognizant of her growing popularity, Mercury Records makes a serious play to sign Ani; she deflects all offers.
Not A Pretty Girl is one of her best albums, balancing the power folk of her earlier work with more fleshed-out band arrangements. It's also the first to mention her sound engineer and future husband Andrew Gilchrist (aka Goat Boy). Pretty Girl is also the first album to feature the now-familiar Righteous Babe logo a defiant woman flexing her muscles, a feminist Atlas.
That summer, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill breaks huge and the media begins scouring the music scene for other "angry young women." DiFranco is quickly lumped into that group by journalists unaware of her half-decade of work to that point.
Another year, another album or two: Dilate, and her first collaboration with political folkie Utah Phillips, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, are released. With eight employees and sales figures over 500,000 units, the financial community begins to notice Righteous Babe Records, prompting articles in financial magazines as well as music and queer culture publications. They focus on her one woman "empire," her per-album royalty rate (more than three times what major label powerhouse acts of the time receive), and her presence as one of the top 50 concert draws in the U.S., a spot she retains to this day. Mainstream press clamours for her attention, and she appears on the cover of Spin in make-up and a sexy leather top, further prompting the impression amongst hardcore Ani fans that she's sold out.
Stalwart Buffalo cheerleader DiFranco appears at the opening of a new sports arena in her hometown, backed by the Buffalo Philharmonic. Two of those songs will be featured on her first concert album, Living In Clip.
In their 25th anniversary edition, Ms. magazine names DiFranco one of 21 feminists to watch in the 21st century. The enclosed write-up concentrates on money and the power of her indie label. She responds with a letter downplaying the business angle, outlining that she wants all her successes and failures to be artistic. She ends the letter by asking for her gravestone to read not, "Ani D, CEO," but: "Songwriter, Musicmaker, Storyteller, Freak." "The media has generally overlooked what I do," she says. "Playing music has not factored into a lot of the description of me, or the definition by other people. What helps me with that rampant omission is that there's the media's relationship with me, and then there's the audience's. They show up for the music. It's not because of how my records are distributed or whomever I'm sleeping with. They show up for the songs and maybe to be inspired by something, whether the media notices that or not."
Her first live album, the two-CD Living In Clip (which refers to sound meters peaking "in the red") showcases just how crazy DiFranco concerts have become, as fans scream and sing along, propelled by DiFranco's intense, good-natured energy.
Little Plastic Castle is released; she's nominated for her first Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance, for "Shy" from Living In Clip; and she produces folkie Dan Bern's record 50 Eggs, which features DiFranco band members Jason Mercer (bass), Sara Lee (keys) and Stochansky. She appears in animated form on King of the Hill as a punky, pierced folk singer who encourages Peggy Hill to branch out from being a typical housewife.
DiFranco marries her sound engineer, Andrew Gilchrist (aka Goat Boy). The media widely reports a "backlash" amongst her fans who feel betrayed. "There was so much press, and I read a lot about the outrage over the fallen angel of the lesbian community and I think I bought into it and let it effect me but the truth is that the actual response that I felt from the audience was a lot of support. I got letters of congratulation, people would shout it out at shows. I'm sure somebody out there was upset that I got hitched, but we're glad you're happy' was, in retrospect, what I heard."
DiFranco courts more controversy when she allows ""32 Flavors" (from Not A Pretty Girl) to be used in promotional spots for the NFL. "I don't allow any of my music to be used in advertisements. While I'm not a big sports fan myself, I think that sports serves a very important function in our society, in that it is an alternative venue for male competitiveness than war. Looking at the political situation now, we could use a good game to play with those boys who need to exorcise their testosterone. I value the existence of sports like football because it brings the races together in a way that only music also does. I think it's constructive in that way."
Despite that position, many DiFranco fans see it only as a commercial. "At this point, I have to be extra careful, if only because of the fucking flack I get for something like that. My booking agent said You realise, everyone is looking for a chink in your armour.' That was a supposed chink."
Up Up Up Up Up Up is released in January; Fellow Workers, her second collaboration with Utah Phillips (on which Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner plays trumpet) is released in May; To The Teeth (which features a vocal by Prince and saxophone by former James Brown sideman Maceo Parker) is released in November. "Most people, when they're making a record, are appropriately thinking that this thing is going to be etched in stone and they should get it right," she says. "Folks dedicate a lot of energy to such perfection in the studio. I have zero patience for that kind of polishing. I use that energy to just keep going somewhere else. My experience with making records is that by the time they're released, I hate them. There are so many mistakes. I can't obsess and perfect because I change too quickly I have something new I'm thinking about. My way of dealing is to apply what lessons I learn making a record on the next record. The records are really loathsome to me. I look back on some pretty decent tunes that are represented in really dubious ways. Often what it takes if you're going to get something out of the records is to listen through the production or even the performance, and the squawking, scared, young, alone girl and listen in for the songs and the intent. Other than that, I'm moving on."
She embarks upon the "F-Word" tour with Parker; it's billed as the "Mistress of Folk Meets the Master of Funk." She also appears on Prince's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.
Righteous Babe is also busy, releasing an album by DiFranco's former mentor, poet Sekou Sundiata, and an album by Brazilian post-punk Arto Lindsay.
The Swing Set EP features covers of tunes by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie. DiFranco continues her fight to take greater control of her performances. "I have spent the last few years dedicating a little more energy than I would have liked in the shut up and sit down' mode. It's been working. I, as well as my audience, am growing up a little and the show dynamic is changing, happily. I've always appreciated this vehement support and affirmation that I've gotten from my audience, but conversely, it's often been very unmusical to me, unartistic and uninteresting. That sort of rock star/fan dynamic really only goes so far I would really prefer to be able to be me, and have a much more engaging dynamic as people. I've been fighting for that. It's definitely changing I'm not confronted with the scream fests that I was years ago."
DiFranco releases the two-CD set, Revelling:Reckoning. The Revelling half is supposed to be a dance-oriented, good times record, while Reckoning showcases more ideas and issue-oriented songs. In truth, the lines between them are blurrier than that. "I think I came close to being comfortable in my own skin on a recording or two. Generally the recordings I'm able to stand behind the easiest are the newest. On Revelling: Reckoning, I think a few of those songs are realised alright."
Her first DVD, Render: Spanning Time with Ani DiFranco, is released. Gathering footage captured over a five-year span, it captures her unique and sometimes troubled relationship with her audience, as well as her musings on the American drug war, the preservation of historical buildings in Buffalo, the death penalty and civil rights.
A scheduled appearance on Late Night with David Letterman is axed. DiFranco wants to play her anti-racism track "Subdivison" (from Revelling: Reckoning); the show's producers want something more "upbeat." "That is the problem with our society right there there's no way I'm going to fucking participate in it. I've structured my whole life to not participate in it. Saying no to a record company when I was 20 years old and starving, looking forward to a whole lot of years of starving and working on my own that's difficult. Saying no to playing on this one TV show was really easy, but that gets a lot of notoriety because it's fucking TV."
Her second two-CD live record, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter is released in September, and it turns out to be a "posthumous" record for its featured band. "I left my band, and I'm performing solo again." DiFranco also performs sitting down for the first time in her life after she breaks her foot in a fall. It turns out to be another learning experience in terms of audience dynamic. "If I charge out on stage with that burst of energy that is inherent to me, and if I move towards the audience, they all get up and move towards me and they're standing the whole show. If I make a point of walking out slower, I'm giving them the unspoken idea that you can stay in your seat, and maybe we can be more chilled out about this. I'm learning to shift what of my audience's energy I encourage or elicit."
Righteous Babe Records has now sold more than two million records through independent distributors world-wide, and DiFranco continues to evolve her music and revel in her personal and political approach. And of course there's always another record. "I actually just finished another one that I'm going to master next week. So it continues."